Working in France
How Non-Europeans Can Work Legally
By Finn Skovgaard
Just as an American from any state is free to live and work in another state, so the citizens of the European Union's 28 member states can choose to settle in another member state. If you want to live in Europe and you are one of the lucky ones who can obtain an EU nationality because of European ancestors, then go for it, as it will make you able to sidestep the queue of Americans wanting to move to Europe—a queue that appears to be of the same size as Europeans wanting to move to the U.S. Another "easy" way is to marry an EU citizen.
Globalization has enabled goods to flow more and more freely, but there is no globalization in sight for the movement of people. Governments on both side of the Atantic seem determined to keep up the fence between the U.S. and the EU. Getting over the fence means finding out where it is lowest, and you must be patient. Patience is particularly important in France. Be prepared for everything to move slower—except freeway traffic and high-speed trains.
French unemployment remains at 9.4%, and many companies hesitate to employ because of the rigid French Working Code that makes laying off difficult and outlaws temporary employment, except in limited cases. France is highly regulated. While the seventh largest economy, there is moderate economic growth in France (2.1% in 2018).
Going through the hoops of obtaining a French work permit for a non-European is just not an option, that is unless you are a highly skilled professional and if no European can be found for the position. To this category includes IT contractors, engineers, and other specialists who may be hired by foreign companies that have service contracts in France. In general, the The American Chamber of Commerce in France says, the opportunities are in services and technology.
Using 2003 as baseline, for example, France issued only 6,500 visas for permanent employment, of which 313 were to Americans. The construction industry and hotel-restaurant sectors accounted for a large part.
If you belong to the majority who cannot explain what a computer's hexadecimal ASCII codes mean, then how about picking fruit. 14,566 visas were issued in 2003 to seasonal agriculture workers, mainly in the sunny south. The bad news is that because of special agreements, 90 percent of them went to Poles and Moroccans, so I suggest polishing up your fruit-picking knowledge before trying this category and avoid being picky if offered a job. Alternatively, try to gain Polish or Moroccan nationality.
Scientists, artists, and authors belong to special visa categories. If you can get a contract in one of these sectors, then you will have fewer problems getting your visa. Numbers are low, however. Only 1162 scientist visas and 375 artist-author visas were issued.
Start Your Own Company
If you have the courage, you can start up a company. This is one of the places where the fence is low if you have a good business idea and enough capital to support yourself a year. The cost changes on a regular basis. To set up as business advisor, translator, journalist or another unregulated profession, you need no other approval than a visa with that activity mentioned. Often it is best to consult a French lawyer.
You must describe your activity on a form provided by a French consulate, including what your background and qualifications to exercise that activity are. "Teaching English" is often the first suggestion I hear from Britons and Americans. However, you will be one in a crowd. Competition is fierce, payment is low, and despite the poor state of the Frenchmen's English skills, you should not count on earning a living from that alone. Remember that the U.K. is close to France and that Britons need neither work nor residence permits to settle in France and teach Oxford English.
With the growing number of English-speaking expats in France it is worth considering how to target them with services or products that they cannot get from French companies. The number of shops selling British food products that are otherwise unavailable in France, such as baked beans, Danish bacon, and Indian curries, is growing and while Paris and the Riviera have a selection of relocation companies, the rest of France is only scarcely covered. Since a Frenchman will likely remain in the place he was born all his life, he has no need for relocation services, so the relocation sector is largely unknown in France. Since the government has not discovered it, there are no laws to tell you what you cannot do. Unregulated sectors are where you may find luck. However, if you plan to sell goods, your activity becomes "commercial," and you will have to make a demand for a carte de commercant together with your visa application.
Unregulated activities like translation and relocation belong to the "visitor" visa category. Other immigrants in the visitor category are artists and authors that exercise independently of a contract.
If you cannot get permission to work in France, then the obvious solution is not to work but go there anyway. If you have a bag of money to live off at least one year, then you can obtain a visitor's visa. Another way of avoiding work is to study. Nearly half of all long-term visas issued are student visas. As a student, you can obtain permission to work half time.
Whatever you decide to try, do your homework and do it well. The French government provides very complete information on the Web, but don't expect civil servants to know the laws they are supposed to administer. A typical civil servant will know the mainstream procedures, but if you ask him about something more complicated or rare, chances are that he won't know anything about it, and rather than admitting that he'll just say that it's not possible. I have stopped counting the number of times I've had to explain French law to French civil servants to obtain something the law entitles me to. You would be well advised to write in your visa application exactly which legal articles you believe entitle you to your visa if you are not in a main category. A representative in France—such as an expat advisor or a legal advisor—may help you with this.
However infuriating the attitude of a civil servant may be, never lose your temper. If you do, the person will see it as a personal victory and a manifestation of his power. Always remain calm and polite. Fortunately, you will generally find that a civil servant can also be flexible and helpful. The key is to adapt to the French way when interacting with anyone. The lunch break is taken very seriously and typically goes from noon to 2 p.m. Telephoning anyone at 11:55 is asking for trouble.
I will look more closely at the dos and don'ts of living in France in another article. Understanding the inimitable French mentality is a key to success in France. Moving to France is not about bringing all your potted plants along; it's all about sowing your seeds in French soil and nurturing them with French fertilizer. This is often how you get the most beautiful plants.
Finn Skovgaard, born in Denmark in 1960, emigrated in 1993 and settled in France in 1998. After more than 20 years IT career, he created his business for relocation, translation, freelance writing and minibus transport in France. He has lived in England, Luxembourg, and Germany.
First serial rights in the USA, including publishing on TransitionsAbroad.com. © Copyright Finn Skovgaard. All rights reserved.